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Devastated but Japan did the best it could

The toll is rising but Japan did manage to save countless lives through years of preparations for the worst. Some of the practices Japan follows:

Building rules

Building codes have long been much more stringent thanmost countries on specific matters like how much a building may sway during a quake. Unlike Haiti, where shoddy construction vastly increased the death toll last year, or China, where failure to follow construction codes worsened the death toll in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Japan enforces some of the world’s most stringent building codes. Japanese buildings tend to be much stiffer and stouter than similar structures in earthquake-prone areas in California. Japan's building code allows for roughly half as much sway back and forth at the top of a high rise during a major quake.

Research

After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, which killed about 6,000 people and injured 26,000, Japan also put enormous resources into new research on protecting structures, as well as retrofitting the country’s older and more vulnerable structures.

Devices

New buildings with advanced devices called base isolation pads and energy dissipation units to dampen the ground’s shaking during an earthquake. The isolation devices are essentially giant rubber-and-steel pads that are installed at the very bottom of the excavation for a building, which then simply sits on top of the pads. The dissipation units are built into a building’s structural skeleton. They are hydraulic cylinders that elongate and contract as the building sways, sapping the motion of energy.

Seawalls

The country that gave the world the word ‘tsunami’ built concrete seawalls in many communities, some as high as 40 feet, which amounted to its first line of defence against the water. In some coastal towns, in the event of an earthquake, networks of sensors are set up to set off alarms in individual residences and automatically shut down floodgates to prevent waves from surging upriver.

Critics of the seawalls say they are eyesores and bad for the environment. The seawalls, they say, can instil a false sense of security among coastal residents and discourage them from participating in regular evacuation drills. Moreover, by literally cutting residents’ visibility of the ocean, the seawalls reduce their ability to understand the sea by observing wave patterns.

Education

Japan’s “massive public education programme” could in the end have saved the most lives, said Rich Eisner, a retired tsunami preparedness expert. In one town, Ofunato, which was struck by a major tsunami in 1960, dozens of signs in Japanese and English mark escape routes, and emergency sirens are tested three times a day. “For a trained population, a matter of 5 or 10 minutes is all you may need to get to high ground,” said an expert. That would be in contrast to the much less experienced southeast Asians, many of whom died in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because they lingered near the coast. Reports in the Japanese news media indicate that people originally listed as missing in remote areas have been turning up in schools and community centres, suggesting that tsunami education and evacuation drills were indeed effective.

Key difference

Most countries focus on preventing collapse, while in Japan, the goal is to prevent any major damage to the buildings because of the swaying. New apartment and office developments in Japan flaunt their seismic resistance as a marketing technique, a fact that has accelerated the use of the latest technologies.

“You can increase the rents by providing a sort of warranty — ‘If you locate here you’ll be safe’,” an engineer said.

Vulnerability

Although many older buildings in Japan have been retrofitted with new bracing since the Kobe quake, there are many rural residences of older construction that are made of very light wood that would be highly vulnerable to damage. The fate of many of those

residences is still unknown.

Compiled from a New York Times News Service report

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